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For Listening Pleasure, Skip the Program Notes?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

To fully enjoy your next trip to the concert hall, you may want to listen to the music before you read the notes in your Playbill. Research results suggest that reading program notes before hearing music can significantly lessen a listener’s enjoyment, according to University of Arkansas music theorist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis. She joins us today.

Also with us is Ben Finane, managing editor at Playbill and editor-in-chief of Listen magazine, and Emil de Cou, an associate conductor at the National Symphony Orchestra, which has offered program notes using Twitter.


Emil de Cou, Ben Finane and Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis

Comments [17]

Stefania Neonato from Ithaca, NY

It's very difficult to draw a conclusion on this kind of topic. Some people enjoy reading, some other people hate reading, some like to read before, some like to read after; beside, program notes can be of very different types. As a performer, aware of the dramatic situation of classical music fruition in the world, I find a spoken introduction (possibly lively) to a concert, the best way to go. People always come afterwards to say how nice it was to hear about the composers, about historical aspects of the music and its characteristics. And why not, some anecdotes. I agree with prof. Margulis' argument about program notes, especially regarding the need of further research to find new ways of captivating new audiences through (possibly) performative means.

Apr. 15 2010 06:07 PM
SuzanneNYC from Upper West Side

All this study shows is that providing a short program note won't necessarily enhance a person's listning to a short excerpt. As with anything, it depends on the program note -- some are delightfully informative in non-snobby way; others are boringly jargon-filled so the non-musician feels inadequate.

Apr. 15 2010 02:38 PM
JP from NJ

Wait, at the beginning of your program you complained about people using electronic devises at concert halls. Now your showcasing an idiot who wants people to be actively on twitter during the entire concert?

Apr. 15 2010 02:32 PM
Nancy Knecht from Vernon NJ

I found program notes to be invaluable in learning to appreciate contemporary classical pieces. They have gotten me through some performances that I might have walked out on without knowing what the composer was trying to express.

Apr. 15 2010 02:29 PM
Samantha from Brooklyn

Twittering during a concert? You've gotta be kidding me. If someone flipped open their screen next to me every minute during a concert (or even once) I'd really want to kill them! Who tolerates that?

Apr. 15 2010 02:29 PM

I find most programs to LACK adequate information especially when I listen to something new and unfamiliar. not to have a frame of reference is annoying and very distracting.

Apr. 15 2010 02:27 PM
Matt from UWS

I think the typical liner notes at classical concerts are too technical and detailed for novices.

One problem is that advocates of "outreach" don't distinguish between the novices vs. advances, or between different educational modalities. Another is that the digital generations aren't interested in printed materials.

So here's my suggestion. Install screens on the backs of the seats (like the Met) but provide access to Wikipedia or other relevant websites. Let the audience members decide what they want to look (e.g. photos, vids) at or read!

Apr. 15 2010 02:23 PM
See from Summit, NJ

The study has zero to do with the way concert goers experience either the music or the program notes, the sample is laughably small. Why even bother to discuss it?

Apr. 15 2010 02:22 PM
Estelle from Austin

In learning to appreciate any new piece of art, I find *historical context* to be more helpful than an actual explanation of the piece itself--which does feel kind of intrusive.
At the same time, I think that even with knowledge of this research, listeners/viewers would probably still choose to have the explanation available. When I'm at an art museum, I have almost an addiction to those little labels with the titles printed on them, even though most of the time my only reaction is: "Oh."

Apr. 15 2010 02:20 PM
CJ from NY

Tyler, don't be a snob.

Apr. 15 2010 02:19 PM
CJ from NY

Please tell me a government grant didn't pay for this study.

Apr. 15 2010 02:18 PM
Tyler from Manhattan

Not to discount the potential validity of the study, hypothesis, or Dr. Margulis' authority on the topic, but a "study" of this nature with only 16 people hardly seems like a large enough pool from which you can draw conclusions. I also wonder how much geography would play into this type of analysis. For example, 16 Manhattanites might yield very different results than 16 people from almost any other region in America.

Apr. 15 2010 02:16 PM
Sam from brooklyn

Perhaps this finally proves that people like listening to music more than JK

Apr. 15 2010 02:15 PM
kp from nj

I guess my habit of reading the program at home after the performance works out well (I do it because I can't read in the dim light of a theater). Who knew I was benefiting from not being able to read in low light...

Apr. 15 2010 02:13 PM
Cynthia from long island

I still don't understand how this shows a direct correlation between the program notes and music enjoyment. Music enjoyment is so selective and personal. Maybe the people who liked it or didn't would have felt that way regardless.

Apr. 15 2010 02:12 PM
Gene De Lisa from 08033

Absolutely false.
But if you want my reasons it will cost you $25.
Hey , that's her asking price for her reasons! (follow the link to see)

Apr. 15 2010 12:32 PM
Kenneth Laub from New York

Respectfully totally disagree. For us schooled first on Rock and Roll and 70's rock, you went to these concerts knowing the music and/or lyrics and something about the selection and performers. Classical music, ballet and opera are no different. All, to some degree, are learned art forms. The more you know, the better you appreciate it and enjoy it.

Apr. 15 2010 11:52 AM

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